REVIEW: The Bad News Bears (1976) Dir. Michael Ritchie

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It’s hard to imagine a film like the Bad News Bears being made today. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine any film made today that actually talks to kids seriously about the pressures and the real pain of growing up during middle school. The pain is made real in “Bears” through a Los Angeles Little League team who are not only troubled because they consistently lose at ever game, but each kid is equally troubled in their personal lives with real, serious issues. Issues such as child abuse, bad coaches, kids with eating disorders, a loner rebel child who deep down really is lonely, a small boy with anger issues, a kid who can’t stand up for himself, a black kid pressured by his family to be an athlete, a girl pitcher, trying to shed the image of being a tomboy and on the brink of puberty….the list goes on. This is a comedy of course, and the kids do and say hilarious things throughout the film that make them more real. But underneath the comedy is a story of deep pain and struggle as each kid tries to overcome their own personal issues. They try to overcome it together, as a team, in their struggle to reach the championships, make something of themselves, and tell the world who they really are.

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Leading the way is Coach Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) with plenty of problems of his own as an alcoholic and constant smoker. He was also a former player for the Major Leagues. When Buttermaker starts out with the team, they are as low as he is as losers. But as they say sometimes, misery loves company, and amazingly he has a way with talking to these kids, never talking down to them and treating them as equals. The kids of course have no problem talking back to him when they think he’s a pain in the ass, or they just want him to shut up so they can do their thing. But for all of Buttermaker’s personal struggles, he brings a good amount of compassion and support for these kids. One of my favorite scenes in the film is in the beginning. After a disastrous game, the young black boy Ahmad runs off. He strips his uniform off down to his underwear and climbs up in a tree feeling ashamed and embarrassed by the loss. When Buttermaker finds him, he climbs the tree and talks to him. Ahmad starts talking to him and telling him about his struggles at home, that his older brothers are better athletes than him, and he deals with harsh pressure from his family to be an athlete too soon. Buttermaker’s talk with him is beautiful and real, and he manages to tap into the little bright essence of the kid still in there (the confidence in himself), to where Ahmad even admits at the end, “I am pretty fast, aren’t I?”

What’s great about this movie is Buttermakers personal transformation as the film goes on, because when the team starts to pull itself up and win games, Buttermaker actually starts getting more abusive towards the kids. His personal ambition to win (not just for the team but a personal need to show everyone he’s not a loser drunk and a failure), he does a lot of terrible things. He tells the star player to catch every fly ball to ensure they will win, leading the other kids to get angry at that boy. He tells a kid who’s shy to let himself get hit by the ball when he’s at bat so he can walk. The kid is afraid and doesn’t want to get hurt. There are several scenes throughout the film that are harsh, with kids being brutal to each other, bullying, and calling each other names. Another one of my favorite scenes is when the fat kid Engelberg is up to bat, and the pitcher kid from the other team taunts and bullys him through the game. But then in the middle of the game, we witness the pitchers father (his coach), slap him down in the middle of the field, to the point where the boy becomes enraged at him and lets Engelberg walk the bases. It’s an incredible turning point for both characters.

I can’t go on though without talking about my favorite character in the film, Tanner Boyle, the young hot headed kid who is also the fighting spirit of the team when everyone is ready to give up. When everyone is ready to quit because the team is being bullied at school, Buttermaker hears that Tanner “took on the entire 7th grade”. He sees Tanner, with a cut lip, and says, “You wanna quit too, Tanner?” and Tanner’s response, “God no, I wanna play ball!” Tanner pushes around 8 year old Lupis, until some older bullies harass Lupus. Tanner steps in and takes a beating to defend him, and even though Lupus is grateful, Tanner still knocks Lupus telling him not take any guff and stand up for himself.

Another one of the great performances is Jakie Earl Haley as Kelly, the punk kid who smokes and rides his mope-head. He also turns out to be the star athlete of the team, but what’s great is how his transition into working with the team is something he’s not comfortable with. It’s very hard for him. There’s a sad moment where after a win, he asks around the other kids if they want to hang out with him and his own teammates ignore him, because they’re a little afraid and don’t understand him. It’s made even worse when Buttermaker forces him to make all the catches to ensure the team will win, which turns him into an outcast among the team who think he’s trying to get in the way of their game.

The story is so tight that it manages to capture the struggle and difficulty of every kid on the team. Two of them are a couple of Hispanic kids who don’t speak English, and really have nobody except themselves to hang in there. But while their is a lot of sadness and frustration among the team, there are absolute hilarious moments throughout the film. One of the most hilarious gags is the pan showing the opposing team being sponsored by Pizza Hut on their uniforms, and then we pan to the Bears, whose sponsor is Chico’s Bail Bonds. There was also another line by Ahmad that was brilliant when he describes how tough Kelly is: “That kid’s a loan shark! I borrowed a nickel from him once, and if I didn’t pay him a dime by the end of the week he threatened to break my arm!” There’s also a fantastic performance by Tatum O’ Neil who plays Amanda, the 11 year old pitcher of the team, who constantly fights with Buttermaker, when he nudges at her like an overbearing father. There’s even a telling moment when Amanda even tells him off, “Who do you think you are?!” and Buttermaker tells her, “I’m you’re coach!” Another powerful sequence came at the championship game, where the opposing teams coach gives his kids a pep talk, “You kids are the best team I ever coached”, and then during the game rips them to shreds on the field throwing in everything from verbal to physical abuse.

I imagine this film started the genre of the underdog little league team movie. It’s no surprise what I expected by the end of the film the Bears would lose the championship. But really, that’s the whole point of the movie. It was never about winning. The real win was the personal transformation among the kids, as well as Buttermaker. The end of the championship game is brilliant with the opposing player holding the large trophy and in a condescending way tells the Bears, “It was a good game, sorry for all the fighting”, to which we get Tanners perfect rebuttal, “Hey Yankees, you can take that trophy and shove it up your ass!” You wouldn’t think to expect any of this from a little league comedy, but it’s not just the humor that sells you on these kids. There are some incredibly powerful, moving sequences in this film, moments of tragedy and sadness, and there are also scenes that are just heart tugging and beautiful. And most importantly, this all happens because the players are treated as real kids with real problems. They endure all the suffering ever kid endures at that age when growing up, entering puberty, and learning early on what teamwork really means, and what it means to become a man (for both the kids and Buttermaker). Parents may be turned off by the kids bullying each other and the harsh language, but this really is a film all kids need to see, because it speaks directly to them. It’s rare these days to encounter a film that talks to kids seriously and treats them as equals, especially a film about kids struggling with their parents expectations that are forced on them. Kids struggle through all of that and the harsh bullying to find and understand who they are inside. There’s kids brutalizing each other, calling one another faggots, niggers, assholes. Kids smoke, drink alcohol, and are beaten. And yet it is one of the most honest and direct Family films you will ever see. Yes, this is a Family film. It deals with the realities all kids face. They need to see this movie as much as their parents.

The script was written by Bill Lancaster, who also wrote the script to one of the greatest 80’s horror films, John Carpenter’s “The Thing”. He wrote very few scripts in his career, but they are two of the most awesome contributions to cinema anywhere. The Bad News Bears is available on Netflix Instant, so no excuses! Go check it out!

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